In India, it is not uncommon for school students to learn from multiple sources. After-school tuitions have been the norm for several years now. Children learn in school and then go to a neighbourhood tuition class to brush up and fine tune the knowledge picked up at school. Frankly, the goal is to clinch a higher percentage of marks in the semester and final exams. Pavan Chauhan, founder of Applect Learning Systems Pvt. Ltd. (parent company behind Meritnation.com), believes it is time to move these tuitions to the Internet. He launched Meritnation.com in January 2009 to address that.
“I think this works to our advantage. Of course, the technology component of delivering this content is important as well but it is the curriculum and the learning modules that lie at the heart of the company.”
Chauhan argues that the biggest advantage of teaching K-12 curriculum online is that the process can be customised as per each student’s needs. “The biggest disadvantage of classroom teaching is that the teacher is trying to serve all students in the class simultaneously,” explains Chauhan. He adds that this thought process lies at the core of curriculum development at Meritnation. The portal is populated with formative assessment modules (to understand what the student knows and what he needs to learn) to customise the learning process as per the need of a user. The backend is continuously developed and fine tuned to make sure the experience for a student is that of easily finding and learning, whatever he needs to learn.
Chauhan admits that, because of his background (he’s been an entrepreneur in the education sector for a while now – he ran a curriculum development services company, he runs a school in a small town near Meerut), Meritnation is more of an education company that a technology firm. “I think this works to our advantage. Of course, the technology component of delivering this content is important as well but it is the curriculum and the learning modules that lie at the heart of the company,” he says.
The Info Edge advantage
When Chauhan and his friend and co-founder from Indian Institute of Management – Bengaluru, Ritesh Hemrajani were looking to start something similar Meritnation, they turned to Info Edge (parent company behind Naukri.com) founder Sanjeev Bikhchandani. In June 2008, the company raised Rs. 6.5 crore in first round of funding from Info Edge. “I think e-learning was fairly different from all the other ventures at Info Edge. But Sanjeev was looking at the education space and was fairly kicked about the oppurtunities in the sector. At the time, it was a leap of faith for Sanjeev. But since then, we’ve made steady progress,” says Chauhan, about raising money from Info Edge.
After the first round, the company continued to raise two more rounds (Rs. 5 crore in June 2009 and Rs. 20 crore in Sept 2011) from Info Edge. Today, it a subsidiary company of Info Edge and Chauhan believes that while there is lot of autonomy in decision making, the knowledge and ideas from the group companies are certainly useful.
Currently, Meritnation attracts a registered user base of over three million people. It operates with a freemium model in mind, hoping to convert a sizable chunk of these free registered users into paid subscribers. Chauhan says there are several aspects that have to be thought about as the online product shapes up. Navigability – the ability to easily find the information or tutorial needed – is crucial. “We need to understand what kind of content attracts students to come back. While students are users in the site, teachers and parents also need to be convinced. As in any educational product, word-of-mouth turns out to be the most important marketing tool. Satisfying students and giving them an experience that is useful and effective is crucial,” adds Chauhan. That is not all. The business can also be seasonal in nature, demand can spike during the exam season and the company is looking to identify ideas to counter this seasonality.
Founders: Pavan Chauhan, Ritesh Hemrajani
USP: Depth of K-12 curriculum content and customisable for each student
Investors: Info Edge
Funding: Rs 31.5 crore over three rounds
The space is also fairly crowded. Topper Learning, Extra Marks and Learn Next are some other web companies looking to break into the K-12 e-learning space. Chauhan suggests, “I’d like to think we’ve a head start with our three million registered user base. In terms of our curriculum, it is tough to match our depth and range of subjects taught.” However, the ride going forward is not easy. With the backing of the latest funding round from Info Edge, the company is executing a brand building campaign, starting with television advertisements. It recently also recruited a chief operations officer from Times Internet to head operational execution.
The next target for Chauhan and the rest of the top management team at Meritnation is to convert the user base into paid subscribers. “We’re hoping to touch six lakh to eight lakh paid users over the next three years,” says Chauhan. On the topic of the key challenges he faces today, Chauhan says he believes he has seen and possibly overcome several challenges over the last few years. “Now, there is opportunity to capitalise on all the knowledge we’ve learnt over the years.” As Chauhan repeatedly mentions, the primary focus at the firm is to give students a great experience by making the discovery of content easy and the quality of content top notch.
Concept in brief
Meritnation.com is an online K-12 education company that is looking to offer school students supplemental training through e-learning. The entrepreneur’s thought process behind launching Meritnation is that the biggest disadvantage of classroom-based teaching is teachers cater to several students simultaneously. However, over the Internet, this teaching process can be customised according to the requirements of each and every student. Pavan Chauhan, the founder of Meritnation, believes that in terms of quality and depth of the curriculum, the company is fairly comfortable and the immediate focus is to build on the paid subscriber base.
The other two big focus areas at the company include building trust among parents (the company recently launched a television campaign with the intent of delivering the message of ‘school made easy’ to them) and fine tune the feature sets of the web product to make sure students keep coming back. Chauhan understands that the time is right to pay attention to the smaller, yet important details of making his venture work. The analytics from the site are carefully measured to tailor the curriculum, product feature sets and even the company’s marketing strategy.